Friday, June 30, 2006

Punjabi - A "Real" New York Eatery

A while ago my buddy and I were talking about New York versus the “Real” New York. As a native New Yorker, he maintained that the longer one lived here, the more city secrets one learns and the more a familiar community the entire city becomes. One learns the best route to cut across town during rush hour, the best Laundromat to get you wash done and, most importantly, the best restaurants to get incredibly delicious and cheap meals. He said through a motley crew of networks and sources, he has cobbled together a comprehensive list of fantastic eateries that offer everything from large pizza slices to golden falafel to plump dumplings. So it came to my surprise when I asked him if he had ever be to the infamous, Pakistani cabbie haunt and his reply was a relative blank stare.

I had first heard of Punjabi on a tip from an old co-worker who used to live in the Lower East Side. He told me about this unbelievably delicious hole in the wall that was beyond cheap and served nobody but cabbies. He told me it was on Houston between First and Second Ave and to go there the next time I was craving an authentic ethnic meal. With no address, I asked him if I would be able to find the place. He just smiled and told me there would be about ten yellow markers leading me to its doorstep.

Those yellow markers turned out to be a never-ending line of cabs and ten was more than an understatement. During a shift change, one’s guaranteed to find at least forty or fifty cabbies come through to enjoy a hot meal and a warm cup of chai. The restaurant is a narrow joint, with a baked in spice aroma and walls jam packed with the latest Pakistani Cds, making it one of those places that transports you to an entirely different part of the world the second you step through the door. The food is on par with the atmosphere, with large pans of lentils, curries and chutneys lining the glass case. With a small portion (rice with two sides) costing two dollars and a large portion (rice with three sides) costing four dollars, it’s not hard to see why the line at Punjabi is inexhaustible. (NB: Even though it’s cheap, the food is easy on the stomach, which seems like a respectful nod to the preferred occupation of their clientele.)

Although I have enjoyed multiple plates of rice and sides (I recommend the curry with spinach and potatoes), the real treasure is the samosa with chickpeas. Served in a Styrofoam bowl, this aromatic piece of heaven will cost you a whopping dollar fifty and drive your taste buds wild. When ordering, I recommend adding a dollop of fresh yogurt and a few slices of onion. The samosa was placed at the bottom of the bowl, smothered with chickpeas, then topped with onions and a healthy spoonful of fresh yogurt. The samosa was stuffed with cooked potatoes and shelled green peas and mixed with a plethora of spices that included garam masala, coriander and cumin to name a few. The chickpeas were tender and sweet, and their soft texture mixed well with the crispiness of the samosa. I urge one to eat this dish quickly, as to keep the crunchy texture of the fried samosa in tact. The onions added a nice tart flavor, while the yogurt’s creaminess coolly balanced out the heat from the spices. Don’t be fooled by the cheap price and small size, one of these bad boys will fill you right up.

Earlier this week I was down on the Lower East Side, catching a show with my native New Yorker friend. In between bands, he suggested we grab some food and immediately headed in the direction of Punjabi. Jokingly, I said, “Punjabi? Never heard of it.” In complete deadpan he replied, “Really? Because anyone who’s a real New Yorker knows all about it.”

Punjabi is located on Houston between First and Second Ave in New York City (Hint: Look for the long line of cabs).

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

S'Mac - Kiss Your Mother With That Mouth?

From an early age, my mother tried to teach me about the importance of fresh food and the harmful nature of processed and canned goods. From birth, she cooked for my brother and I, making almost everyone of our meals from fresh fruits, vegetables and meats. She took the importance of cooking from scratch so seriously, that the greatest insult in her kitchen was to call myself a Gerber baby. So what did I take away from all this? I realized that there was nothing I wanted more than unhealthy, processed, canned food to rot my innards, stunt my growth and, on the whole, destroy all the good work my mother’s cooking had done for my well being. As a kid wanting and having destructive food are two different things and seeing how my mom did the grocery shopping, I knew I would have to convince her to buy me the food she so dearly detested. I knew it couldn’t be some super processed food, like frozen pizza or fish sticks, so I picked a meal that I could see her making, but it was just easier to buy. That my friends, was mac ‘n’ cheese, and for the better part of my middle and high school existence, it was my main source of fuel.

Now almost a decade later, it seems that mac ‘n’ cheese has become the side d’jour of many gourmet restaurants. Long gone are the days of simple elbow pasta mixed with melted American cheese. Today it’s all about a spruced up approaches like a four cheese blend, mixed with Andouille sausage and baked with Sourdough breadcrumbs on top. And to tell you the truth, I couldn’t be happier. This past weekend New Yorkers were treated to the grand opening of S’Mac, a quaint, East Village eatery whose menu exclusively features all things mac ‘n’ cheese. Although opening only nine months after being conceived, husband and wife team Ceaser and Sarita Eyka (Owner of the infamous Peanut Butter Co. in the Greenwich Village) had built up quite a buzz and despite the flood inducing downpour, people were lined up out the door to try their wares.

Doing our best to stay dry (and to watch as much World Cup as possible) we didn’t make it to S’Mac until around two-thirty. Unbeknownst to us, they had been slammed since opening that morning and by the time we got in line, multiple items had been scratched from the menu. The situation was so dire, that about ten minutes after we arrived they posted a sign saying that they were shutting down for a few hours and reopening at five-thirty. With a broken air conditioner, a jam packed dining area and a thirty plus minute wait, we contemplated getting out food to go, but once we saw that each dish was individually served in a mini iron skillet, we decided to wait it out. TO fully explore the menu we decided to each order a different dish, so I picked the “Gruyere”, a Swiss styled dish with elbow pasta (the other options is whole wheat pasta), Gruyere cheese and slab bacon (Nosh Size, $6.75).

After ordering, another thirty-minute wait ensued, but this gave the crowd time to thin out and allowed us to grab seats. Finally my number was called and I was presented with a personal skillet, filled with about a pound of the good stuff and topped with a golden brown, baked breadcrumb crust. The pasta was cooked to a nice al dente and mixed the right amount of Gruyere, which was at first lightly sweet, but then tasted more earthy and nutty. The slab bacon was cut into sizable chunks and it’s salty fat rounded out the dish’s full flavor. While I nibbled at all of the other dishes, the best was the “Brie”, which was creamy Brie, roasted figs, roasted shiitake mushrooms & fresh rosemary. It had a distinctive velvety and sweet taste, with the roasted figs adding a delicately juicy texture.

As we finished our skillets (every bite of every dish was eaten), I chatted briefly with a very frazzled looking Ceaser and Sarita. I told them I was a huge mac ‘n’ cheese fan and that I had been counting down the days till their grand opening. They smiled politely (I can’t imagine I was the first one to say that) and then asked me how I liked the “Gruyere”. I thought for a second and then replied, “It was so good, that even my mother would approve.”

S'Mac is at 345 East 12th St in New York City.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Momofuku - My Return to Ramen

My collegiate culinary experience was an eclectic mix of dining hall gorge fests, burrito attacks and a never-ending supply of Ramen Noodle. While the former was mainly reserved for my Freshman year, and when I was lucky enough to coerce an undergrad to buy me a meal, the mid and latter parts of my experience lasted the length of my four year endeavor. While burritos were regulated to once a week (Anna’s Taqueria on Sundays at approximately 3pm), Ramen Noodles were regrettably a larger part of my diet. Fortunately, Ramen costs about nineteen cents a packet, so there was a lot of room for experimentation, some that worked (Ramen with vegetables) and some that didn’t (Ramen with hotdogs). Although Ramen offers over a dozen different types of “flavors” (everything from chicken to pork to beef), after a few weeks on the Ramen diet, it all began to taste the same and my body began to feel, well, appropriately “off”. In fact, I grew so sick of Ramen that until a few days ago, I usually steered clear of anything associated with Ramen.

Momofuku, which is Japanese for Lucky Peach, is a minimalist, East Village, noodle bar, that serves traditional Ramen dishes with a modernly, organic twist. Instead of the commonly found low-grade meat scraps and wilted vegetables one would expect from a New York noodle bar, Executive Chef David Chang (2006 James Beard Nominee for Rising Chef) has curated a menu that offers organic farm raised animals and vegetables. The result is classic Japanese fare, with an invigoratingly fresh and organic taste. So with this in mind, I decided to suck it up and to give Ramen, once again, the good ol’ college try.

To fully enjoy Momofuku’s dining experience, try to hold out for a seat right in front of the open kitchen. Although the thought of waiting any more than one would have to seems like a type of self-masochism (the average wait for dinner is about forty-five minutes), a seat in front of the kitchen allows one to fully experience the fast-paced (and may I add snarky) interactions between the chefs, their food and the waiters. We started off the meal with Baby Octopus, which was served with konbu, menma and pickeld chilis ($13). These full octopi were first boiled and then pan fried, which resulted in incredibly sweet and tender meat, with a dark and crispy out side. The pickled vegetables and light broth did well to compliment the octopi and gave the overall dish an additional tart and salty kick. Next up were the Chicken Steam Buns ($*8), two airy and fluffy pillows, with just the right balance of dough and soft, shredded chicken.

Finally it was time for the Ramen and we decided on the signature Momofuku Ramen ($14), which was Berkshire pork, shanghai think noodles and a poached egg, all served in a long-simmered stock (made from 70 pounds of chicken legs, roasted pork bones, ham hocks, and bacon). We started by cracking the poached egg, which was used for its creaminess instead of adding dairy, and mixing all of the ingredients together. The noodles were impeccably cooked and the pork (which came from Eden Farms and the Piccinini Brother in Iowa) was on par with some of the best slow cooked meat I had ever had. The dish, which was more than enough for two, was so impressive in taste and presentation, that I have officially added Ramen back into my culinary rotation.

Now for all of you who might think that I over reacted to what was widely considered a staple of the college diet, allow me to share this Ramen horror story. Upon my first trip home from college, one of my good friends told me that in an attempt to save money, he had cancelled his dining plan and eaten nothing but Ramen since day one. Around the end of October he began suffering from sever mouth pain, especially in his teeth. In fact, his teeth began to hurt so badly that he eventually had to visit the campus dentist. The dentist asked him if he had suffered any accidents or injuries, to which my friend answered no. Stumped by the student’s pain, the doctor finally asked what he had been eating. My friend answered, with a painful grin, “Well to be honest, I’ve been living on the Ramen diet: All Ramen, all the time.” With that, the dentist went to his textbook and with a little research, and much head shaking, diagnosed my friend with Barlow’s Disease, better known as scurvy.

Momofuku is located at 163 First Ave in New York City.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Kitchen Sink - Louisville

This past week of eating has been overwhelmingly healthy due to the precious week’s gorge fest that was Louisville. With so many fantastic stops on my southern eating tour, there were too many incredible restaurants to write about. So instead of just picking one, I’ve decided to give you a taste of Louisville, or what I like to call, The Kitchen Sink.

There is no greater find on the road than a “chef’s chef” restaurant, one of those places that every chef, cook and dishwasher goes to eat after they knock off from work. These establishments are usually raucous places, filled with little pretension, stiff drinks and incredible food. One of these fantastic institutions is Lynn’s Paradise Café, a flamboyant café full of so much flare and knickknacks that it makes Friday’s look like a prison. Lynn Winters, the founder and owner, has been providing chefs and common folk alike huge plates of southern delicacies, like Fried Green Tomato BLTs, sine the early 1990s. If you can only make it there for one meal, I would recommend brunch. It’s a tough choice between the spicy Bloody Mary (home made mix) or the bubbly Mimosa, but it’s almost impossible to choose between the Bourbon Ball French Toast and the Louisville Country Scramble. The formers is an overly whelming sweet plate of golden bread, covered in bourbon custard, bourbon whip cream and drizzled in chocolate; while the latter is savory mix of salty country ham, rich Jarlesberg cheese, fluffy eggs and topped with fried, jalapeno onions. Don’t forget to save room for the biscuits with Sorghum butter and the macaroni and cheese (an Oprah favorite). In other words, plan on spending a good two hours there, eating, drinking and watching your stomach grow.

Another must have with any trip down to the south is barbeque. As many of you know, I have unreasonably high standards for this type of food (you can blame the Saltlick for this). Luckily enough we did our research and came across Juciy’s, an East-Texas styled BBQ joint located about thirty minutes outside of town. Troy, the modest and soft-spoken owner, opened up shop about ten years ago and has been cooking slow and low ever since. When we asked for a sampling of their best food, they literally brought out everything on the menu. With the exception of the brisket (which I had read was hit or miss) everything was fantastic. The ribs, pulled pork and chopped beef were phenomenally sweet, salty and beyond tender. And if you like turkey and ham, forget about it, cause Mom never gave me lunch-meats as moist and succulent as this. I barely touched the sides to due the massive intake of meat, but I did save room for the apple cobbler, which oozed butter and crumbled deliciousness all over my taste buds. They don’t serve alcohol, and I’m not sure about their BOYB policy, but it doesn’t really matter because their sweet tea will take your breath away. Honestly, this place was just as good as the ‘Lick and worth the drive out.

Finally, if you’re in the south, you have to eat fried food. The best places to indulge are usually dives found off the side of the highway, places where if one were to ask “Excuse me, but do you fry with zero trans fat oil?” you could run the risk of getting a shotgun pulled on you. On our way to the Maker’s Mark Distillery (a must visit for any bourbon fan) we stopped off at the Rooster Run General Store for some southern delicacies. While my friends dined on fried bologna sandwiches and chicken fried steak, I ordered the mac ‘n’ cheese and the fried pork tenderloin sandwich, which was served on a wheat roll with lettuce tomato and a couple of thick slice of American cheese. The mac ‘n’ cheese was more of a creamy soup than a pasta dish, but the sandwich was pitch perfect roadside, southern cuisine: fried crispy meat, soft processed cheese and unhealthy amounts of creamy mayonnaise. Also, no stop at the Rooster Run General Store is complete without the purchase of their incredible t-shirts or mesh caps.

All in all, my trip to Louisville was sprinkled with a type of self-indulgent, unhealthy eating that I hadn’t experienced since my college days. To counter balance that, I filled this past week with a healthy mix of fruits, salads and horse-pill sized vitamins. Now only if those vitamins were deep fried…

Lynn's Paradise Cafe is located at 984 Barret Ave in Louisville, KY.
Juicy's is located at 7626 New Lagrange Rd in Pee Wee, KY.
Rooster Run General Store is located at 6515 New Shepherdsville Road in Rooster Run, Kentucky.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Jack Fry's - An Introduction to Louisville Cuisine

There is no better way to learn about a city than to eat its food. Say what you will about art, fashion and music, if you really want to get to know a culture, eat their food. Eating local cuisine not only teaches one about regional dishes and ingredients, but it educates a person about provincial traditions, history and people. Last week I was in Louisville, Kentucky, doing my best to learn all I could about the city. Although mostly known for the Kentucky Derby and the birthplace of Mohamed Ali, not many people know that the city has both the highest ratio of locally owned restaurants per capita (with the exception of New York City) and the most number of family owned farms. Even more impressive is the city’s wide spread practice of self-sustaining farming and use of local products through a loose but incredible network known as Kentucky Proud. Kentucky Proud represents the gauntlet of the food market, showcasing everything from “delicious blackberry jam, rich-tasting Kentucky country ham, mouth-watering tomatoes and melons, and much more.” With their secret ingredients being nothing more than hard work and dedication from community farmers, it’s easy to see why so many restaurant owners choose regional product over national fare.

One of these restaurant owners is Susan Seiler, proprietor of Louisville’s renowned Jack Fry’s. Named after its original cantankerous owner, this local favorite has been serving the public for over seventy years. Since Mr. and Mrs. Fry never had any children, the restaurant has had various owners over the years, including Susan, who took over in the 1980s. She immediately started shifting the menu away from an upscale greasy spoon to a more elegant and refined dining experience. As she began to develop her menu (some of her original dishes can still be found on today’s menu), Susan began to work more and more with local farmers, making sure to both represent regional food and provide the best ingredients to her public. The result is a non-pretentious, four-star restaurant that uses and serves the freshest regional food possible to local and visiting crowds.

Sunday night was one of those nights that can only be described as a southern porch night. As we drove over to the restaurant, it seemed that every inhabitant of this lusciously green city was outside, eating, drinking and enjoying a rare, non-humid evening. As a result, Jack Fry’s was unusually empty, but suited our purposes nicely with our last minute reservation. We had called ahead to make sure Susan would be there, and not only did she promise to be there, but she promised to bestow us the honor of setting up an informal tasting of her entire menu.

The décor was romantic and nostalgic, with dim lighting, swinging jazz and wall-to-wall picture of horses, Jack Fry and the illustrative history of Louisville. Susan personally sat us at a corner table and with a wink, said our martinis would be right up. In no time at all, I was enjoying the smoothest, and dare I say strongest, Manhattan I had ever had (made with Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old bourbon). Through this drink, I knew we were in for something special.

As we sipped on our drinks, our fantastic server, Liz, delivered the first of our delectable dishes to our table. We started on the Medjool dates, which were bacon wrapped, then stuffed with chorizo sausage and goat cheese and covered in a smoky tomato vinaigrette ($12). Although an appetizers, this could have easily been served as a dessert, as it blended the line of savory and sweet, with strong flavors of salted pork, rich chocolate and tartly, sweet tomatoes. Up next were the spicy fried oysters (cayenne pepper were mixed in the breading), served with Kentucky country ham, green onions and grits ($12). The oysters were perfectly fried and the decadently rich grits had a nice cooling effect after the heat of the cayenne pepper. Finally we had the diver scallops, which were pan seared and served with Kentucky Bibb lettuce in a brown butter sauce, then finished off with a white truffle oil ($12). These meaty scallops were seared flawlessly and melted in my mouth, as the sauce showed my taste buds a whole new level of rich depravity.

Our plates were cleared and we were given little respite until the salads were upon us. Making sure that we saved room for the main course, Susan graciously only served us half orders of all four of her salads. Although I tasted all four, I mainly focused on two of her leafy masterpieces. The Warm Brie Salad ($6.50), melted Brie served on Kentucky Bibb with toasted almonds (a salad that has been on the menu for over twenty years), impeccably represented the traditional Spring flavors of blossoming greens, buttery cheese and earthy nuts. Meanwhile the Goat Cheese Salad ($6.75), cold Goat Cheese served with candied pecans and sun-dried cranberries, played tart and sweet effortlessly against each other, while resting nicely over a fantastic mix seasonal greens, which were drizzled lightly with a lemon balsamic vinaigrette.

As we finished our salads and the last of our martinis, a grinning Susan informed us that she had paired two beautiful wines to go with our upcoming entrees. She started us with a Hendry Block 8, a 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley. Full in flavor, the wine had acidic fruit notes and a small hint of oak. Next up was a 2004 Conundrum Chardonnay, a white table wine from Rutherford, California. This wine was the most complex white wine I had ever tasted, which was probably due to the nine grapes used in its creation.

As the wine continued to flow, our entrees arrived and we were forced to dig deep into the reserves of our stomachs to find more room. I started by tucking into the herb encrusted Pork Chop, a healthy twelve once center cut loin chop, seared with a dry vermouth glaze and served with a medley of roasted new potatoes, asparagus, apple smoked bacon, garlic and shiitakes. The crisp crust complimented the tender meat, while the medley of vegetables reminded me about the significance of Kentucky Proud. After a few bites, we passed out plates to the left and I was presented with the Salmon Filet. This dish was also seared and encrusted with almond and pistachio rub, then served on sautéed spinach with a tomato, pearl onion and chive buerre blanc. The salmon was cooked with a tender precision, and the saltiness of the almond and pistachio crust nicely off set the sweet buerre blanc. Next up was the Lobster Campanelle, a bountiful dish of lobster tails tossed with fresh campanelle pastas, Nicoise olives, bacon, sun-dried tomatoes, jalapenos, broccoli rabe and tomato concasse in a rosemary shallot olive oil, topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano. With so many ingredients packed into such a small dish, one would think that this entree would come off as heavy and overwhelming, but it was just the opposite. There was a perfect balance of individual components and just the right amount of oil and cream that gave the dish a both a light and rich feeling.

Finally it was time for dessert, and with much begging and pleading, we managed to persuade Susan to only prepare two of her decadent desserts, instead of the four she had already picked out. First up was the Chocolate Pave, a flourless chocolate cake served with Grand Marnier braised bananas in Amarula sauce and topped off with vanilla, pecan, and toffee ice cream. The cake itself was a self-indulgent abyss of rich chocolate, while the bananas and ice cream were gently sweet and did well to balance the almost overwhelming coco flavors. Finally we were served the last dish of the night, a Crème Caramel, a vanilla custard with warm caramel sauce and a burnt sugar crust. Although much more modest than the Chocolate Pave, this was my favorite of the two due to its simple, charming taste and its refined presentation.

All in all the meal ran just over three hours and ended with private tour of Jack Fry’s enormous kitchen. The meal was a pitch perfect prologue to the weeklong eating tour we were about to embark on. Susan graciously introduced us to the local ingredients, dishes and service we would enjoy over the next few days; and through her food, we received more than just a taste of the city, but a full course meal on Louisville’s culture, cuisine and farmer friendly community.

Jack Fry's is located at 1007 Bardstown Road in Louisville, KY.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Louisville - So Much Food

I am in Louisville right now eating my brains out. I promise updates as soon as I can think straight.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Creperie - Spring Is Here

During the spring break of my Sophomore year of college, I decided, like most young men, that it was time for me to visit Europe. I didn’t want to be trendy (Berlin) or trite (Amsterdam) or classic (Rome) so I decided to visit a small, but rapidly growing French city, about 290 miles east of London. Although mostly known for its art and fashion, Paris, France is city becoming quickly known for its culinary accolades. Whether it’s the traditional fries, toast or onion soup (it’s unnecessary to add the “French” prefix over there), any gourmand will be blown away by this city’s gastronomic offerings. In addition to offering delicious food, Paris is also known for having an excellent selection of delectably cheap food. Whether it’s a fresh baguette slathered with brie or an airy croissant smoothed in fresh fruit preserves, the City of Lights offers its visitors a full stomach, without having any empty wallet. Of all the enticing and economical edibles I sampled, I wound up falling in love with crepes. Both savory and sweet, these (almost translucently) thin delectables can be filled with anything from Nutella and bananas to spinach and egg to chicken and cheese. Usually costing only four or five euros (don’t forget to add an extra euro or two for an Orangina), this collation à la française became a staple of almost all my meals.

Whenever Spring hits, as it did quite spectacularly this past week, I always get a yearning for crepes. Call it silly, but when there’s a crisp breeze and the smell of lovers in the air, I am overwhelmed by the desire to consume these gourmet Hot Pockets. Earlier this week I happened to be in the Lower East Side on my way to Bar 151, when a craving overtook me. Luckily I was right near Creperie, a hole in wall crepe shop known for it fresh made food and its authentic ingredients. It was late in the evening, in between the dinner crowd and the late night snackers, so the restaurant was empty with the exception of the two cooks behind the counter. Although the menu was stacked with classic combinations, like sweet butter with sugar and savory smoked turkey with shredded Swiss cheese, I was in the mood for breakfast (per usual) and ordered the fried egg with shredded mozzarella.

Utilizing both of their sodirs, the cook started cooking the eggs and the crepe at the same time. With the exception of a half-lit cigarette dangling out of his mouth, the cook resembled and contained all the grace and know-how of every Parisian street vendor I had ever met. After the first side of the crepe had cooked to a perfect golden brown, it was flipped, and the egg and cheese were placed on top. The crepe was then folded into a perfect rectangle, left on the grill for about five minutes and then served with no frills on a plastic plate ($9 with a bottle of water). Upon first cut, the excess cheese oozed out perfectly, while the remaining cheese stayed melted onto the delightful crepe. Luckily, the egg had only cooked to over medium, so I used the yolk as an internal dipping sauce. Overall the crepe was sweet and fresh, with the cheese and egg melted and cooked to perfection.

Although fulfilling, the crepe wasn’t filling and the only thing that kept me from ordering another one was price. With the exception of leaving hungry (something I hate doing) the experience was exceptional. It brought fond back memories of crawling through the catacombs, frolicking on the Champs Elysees, and, of course, gorging myself silly on crusty banquettes, buttery croissant and tasty crepes.

Creperie is located at 135 Ludlow St in the Lower East Side, New York.